Friday, November 7, 2014

Am I a Square-foot Gardener? Yes. And no.

I get asked regularly by my friends if I am a square-foot gardener. They are refering, of course, to Mel Bartholomew's concept and his book of the same name. My answer is both simple and complicated and I usually say yes or no depending on how much time I have to answer the question and how much detail they want.
This is the book. Buy it, read it, learn from it.
You'll be glad you did.
I tell them that I am if I don't have time to go into detail about the ways that I am not. I usually modify my answer by telling them that I don't use his soil mix, I don't use chemical fertilizers, and I will never put a 1-foot by 1-foot plastic grid in my garden beds. To be a true purist SFGer, you have to have and use those things. So, that's part of why I am not.

I do use his plant spacings. I have found for my self that this is the best part of his concept. The idea is that you ignore the row spacings because you are not planting in rows. If a plant needs to be centered 6 inches from the next one in a row, then it can be centered 6 inches from the next one to the side also. That fits well in a square garden idea.
These are onions that I grew, spaced at 9 per square foot.
This idea is not new to Mel, though. It was brought to a high degree of development during the French Intensive Gardeing era in Paris which started in the late 1800's. There, they planted in deep horse manure beds (with horses serving as the primary transportation engine, manure was readily available) and planted closely so that when the plants were mature, their outer leaves touched each other. This does a couple of things. One, it makes the most efficient use of garden space so the maximum number of plants can be grown. Two, it creates a shaded soil and acts like a living mulch so less water is needed. This growing method was introduced to the United States around the 1960's or 70's by Alan Chadwick. Mel's method is an outgrowth of this.

I have been using a square measure with plants evenly spaced along both the length and width of the growing bed. I've recently discovered (see, I'm learning, too!) that if I stagger the rows, I can plant even closer. I'll do a post on that later.

I do grow in raised beds into which I have put my soil. These are permanent structures that we built when we reclaimed a huge berm in my back yard. When we bought the house, the back wall had a ginormous earth berm gowing up to the base of the block wall. It was over twelve feet high and extended into the yard about 20 feet. The lot behind me is 18 feet higher than my lot and rather than have sloping yards, the developer built berms. We, my family and friends, cut this back to 12-feet out from the wall and raised it in 3-foot lifts so I have three, 3-foot by 75-foot terraces that are my garden. Since the native "soil" is nothing more than rock, we hauled out dozens of truckloads of rock and hauled in dozens of yards of "soil." This soil was about a 50/50 split of sand and "organic material," mostly rice hulls. Still crappy, but if you put enough compost into it, you can get stuff to grow.
My grow beds, way back in the day. The back wall is 14 feet above
the top grow bed. The three on the back are about 75-feet long and 3-feet
wide. The one on the side is 2-feet wide and also has 75 feet of growing space.
The trees are 10 years older and much larger now.
Where I differ from his plan is easy to see. First, I don't use his Mel's Mix, his formula for blending certain ingredients to create an artificial (in my opinion) soil in which to grow. I use actual dirt into which I add large amounts of compost seveal times a year. I amend my soil, rotate my plantings and mulch like crazy. SFGers don't usually mulch. I can't afford that much water. Living in the desert requires that I mulch or I have to water every single day and twice a day during the summer. By adding so much compost every year, my organic component of my soil is higher than normal and this holds a great deal of water. By mulching, I make sure that the water is available to my plants rather than evaporating into the sky.
This is a photo from Square Foot's website showing the 1/3 compost
1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite mix that is Mel's mix.
Second, I don't use chemical fertilizers. I won't buy them, use them or suggest that others use them. I don't believe that they resemble anything Nature has provided so I avoid them. With that being said, I will spread chemical fertilizer on the grass because the lawn is a hideous monoculture which belongs to my wife because that's what she wants. So, I spread it there and hope that it stays green and lush which makes her happy. If she's happy then I'm happy. And if it takes chemical fertilizers to do it, consider it done. But I won't use them in the garden.

Third, Mel recommends placing a grid of plastic or wood or string in the garden dividing the growing area into 1-foot-square planting spaces. I look at that as a waste of time and materials and a colossal hassle. It might work for some, but it doesn't work for me.
Another photo from their website. This shows a beautiful set of
4x4-foot grow beds with a white plastic lattice-work at 12-inch
spacing. Makes a pretty picture, but gets in my way.Your experience may differ.

I have built and used a 3-foot square frame with 9, 1-foot squares outlined in heavy cord. I use that tool to help me plant my beds but I don't leave it there. If I put seedlings or transplants in, I know where the squares are and if I plant seeds, I will know soon enough. A permanent grid doesn't make sense to me, especially after the first planting.

So, am I a square-foot gardener? I guess the best answer is, "Sort of."

Now the next question is, "Am I a Back-to-Eden gardener?"

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